At this time of year more than any other, I can be guaranteed to always have a pair of loppers in the car, just in case I pass the perfect hazel hedge. Last year’s garden arches have just succumbed to the winter gales and become kindling, so I’m looking for new poles for this year’s creations.

I love hazel in the garden – I use long poles for arches and tunnels, spreading branches for pea sticks, straight whippy rods to weave into plant supports and short sturdy poles for staking wobbly plants. I’ve even got a jug of catkins on the windowsill, to remind me that spring may feel distant at the moment, but it is inevitable!

I’m not alone – humans have been using hazel (Corylus avellana) in this country since Neolithic times, and it is so important in our history it has shaped our landscape, language, culture, settlements and eco-systems.

Its ability to be bent and shaped, and split length-wise without breaking, meant it could be woven into wattle panels, used for fencing and sheep hurdles (ie portable fencing for lambing pens etc), and also the base for wattle & daub. This is the building material common for centuries, especially in the West Country, where the raw ingredients of hazel, mud and dung can all be found in abundance. It is still used for hurdle fencing, although mainly in gardens, and in thatching spars, as no better alternative has ever been found. Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Woodlanders’ is almost an extended love-letter to the hazel, with all the action centred around the woods, coppices, yards and markets where hazel was grown, processed and sold, as it was a huge part of the rural economy.

One reason that it produces such useful material is that it reacts so well to a process called coppicing: this brutal-looking practice involves cutting the stems or trunks to ground level, and letting them regrow from the many smaller shoots that result. This shocked growth can be very rapid (willow coppice can easily grow 6ft in a year) and so it doesn’t have time to throw out laterals (side branches), meaning lovely straight, clean poles that are useful for so many things. Although coppicing looks catastrophic at the time, it is actually very good for the plant, and with careful management, can prolong the life of the base (or ‘stool’ as it’s known) almost indefinitely.

This coppicing creates open, light woodland with a low canopy, and is often grown underneath taller, widely spaced trees such as oak. This pattern of ‘coppice and standard’ creates fantastic habitat; light enough for other plants to thrive, protection from extremes of temperature and weather, a mix of old, new and dead material, and multiple stories of vegetation. This is perfect for all sorts of wildflowers, birds, mammals and invertebrates, and is in many ways what people think of as the archetypal English woodland.

Humans have also exploited this ability to regrow shoots from a wound by using hazel in hedges; when almost cut through, it can be bent through 90 degrees and still live, throwing up new shoots along its length and from the base. This is hedgelaying, a rural skill which occupied many thousands of farm labourers in the winter, and can still be seen a lot in Dorset and Devon now. It can be as basic as bending stems to block a gap, or an art form which attracts fierce competition. There are many courses available at this time of year, and hedge-laying competitions are a great way to see how it should be done – it is very impressive when carried out by an expert. There are different styles locally – I’m not an expert, but I think the local style is the double hedge – a bank topped with two adjacent hedges. This would be fantastic at keeping livestock in, and as it grows back through existing material, it just gets better and better.

These hedges have literally shaped our landscape, and provide shelter and food for so many species of wildlife and wildflowers that they are crucially important. Many hundreds of miles of hedges were grubbed out to make way for larger fields, especially as farm machinery got larger & larger. Species such as the hazel dormouse have really suffered, but the importance of hedges is now more widely recognised and they are more protected by law. One of the main threats these days is economic – it is expensive to get someone to lay a hedge, and far cheaper to flail it with a tractor and flail, but there are stewardship grants etc available to help landowners restore and maintain hazel hedges.

Obviously the fruit of the hazel is the hazelnut – without this little tree, we’d never have Nutella! The nuts have been an important food source for thousands of years, and they have been selectively bred to give us filberts, cob nuts etc, as well as the humble but currently very trendy hazel nut.

Back to the garden; I use tall, sturdy stems for arches, and 3-4ft, one-year-old stems from recently laid hedges for plant supports, wigwams,  Christmas wreath bases etc. They are not quite as pliable as coppiced willow, so the result is a bit more rustic, but I think it is a bit sturdier. I love the fact that it’s such a totally renewable resource, local and looks very at home in the garden, as it often literally is! From water-divining to City of London tally sticks, this unassuming shrub has given us so much, and with catkins being the first herald of spring, you can’t fail to love it.

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